Working Traits of the Big Three - The Labrador, The Golden, and The Chesapeake by Amy Dahl, Ph.D.
Amy Dahl is also the co-author, with her husband, John, of The 10-Minute Retriever - How to Make an Obedient and Enthusiastic Sporting Dog in 10 Minutes a Day.
If you attend a retriever field trial in certain parts of the country, you may be fortunate enough to see outstanding work by representatives of each of the three main retrieving breeds. Labradors, most of them black, charge across the landscape, feet thundering like those of racehorses. Richly-colored Goldens flash out to make their retrieves, responding to their handlers' whistles with astonishing quickness, looking as though at any moment they might double back like a hare. Dull brown Chesapeakes flow over the landscape like music, their great speed concealed by the grace and ease of movement typical of even the most chunky examples of the breed. All three are likely to show uncanny marking ability in difficult terrain and cover, courage to plunge into cold water or rough cover, and a level of dog-handler teamwork incomprensible to those who think of dogs as "just pets."
While individuals from each of these breeds are capable of work at the level showcased in field trials, personality, working traits, and response to training vary with breed and sex. People will differ as to which dog suits them best. In this article we will describe some of the distinctive characteristics of the Big Three retriever breeds, and suggest our ideas on which dogs might best meet particular goals for a prospective owner.
We could argue that a good training program begins with selection of a dog, for the more the owner likes and understands the dog, the better job he or she will do training it. We hope this article will also be of interest to readers who are already committed to a dog, in defining how their dog differs from those they passed over in choosing it.
There is tremendous variability within each breed, due to the differing goals and strategies of the breeders. We are interested in describing, and differentiating between, the best working dogs typical of the three breeds. Dogs bred for show, color, or any other purpose than retrieving ability are unlikely to meet these descriptions.
The Big Three
Photo by: Author
The Lab's unique nature deserves much of the credit for the breed's success. Labradors in general excel in training toughness, the ability to respond to training pressure by learning something from it and without apparent loss of desire to retrieve.
By far the most popular retriever breed is the Labrador. One sees far more Labradors than any other breed at field trials, at hunting tests, and, except perhaps on Maryland's Eastern Shore, in the vicinity of boat ramps during hunting season. Although history plays a role, the Lab's unique nature deserves much of the credit for the breed's success. Labradors in general excel in training toughness, the ability to respond to training pressure by learning something from it and without apparent loss of desire to retrieve.
Pressure describes a situation in which the dog must figure something out but has not yet done so. It usually involves physical discomfort (ear pinch, electric shock, etc.) but a dog also finds it stressful to be repeatedly called back and required to try again. A dog lacking training toughness is said to be "soft" and will appear to lose interest in retrieving (quit) after pressure is applied. Excessively soft dogs are unpopular with trainers. When working a Labrador, praise needs to be low-key and restrained, or it will fracture the dog's concentration and disrupt the progress of training.
Labs also have the nature of being good students, readily accepting the job of solving problems in order to make retrieves. Most good Labradors are highly adaptable and readily adjust to a new environment, a new trainer, and new requirements being made upon them.
There are many examples of the Labrador's flexibility and rapid learning. John got Warpath Macho, a black Lab, in training when the dog was 3 1/2 years old and had never stopped on a whistle. By the time Macho was five, he was a Field Champion and a good one, placing in one-third of the trials he ran. He not only had to change his lifelong habit of running out of control, he learned the handling and lining skills needed for long and complicated blind retrieves in an extremely short time.
This adaptability is more typical of Labradors than other breeds. Macho typified another common Labrador trait--going all-out, all the time. While Goldens, though energetic, have great stamina and Chesapeakes often learn to pace themselves, Labradors are apt to run themselves to death. Of course handlers need to be aware that hard work in hot weather is hazardous to any dog, but a Labrador is particularly disposed to require intervention for his own good.
Most trainers believe that any dog can be taught to do blind retrieves, and indeed the accepted history is that handling originated with sheepdogs and was brought to American Labrador kennels by Scottish trainer Dave Elliot (we suspect hunters had waved their arms at their Chesapeakes for many years before). Still, certain strains of Labradors excel in the ability to run in straight lines. These dogs readily learn to take a line from their handler and hold it through hazards, and to carry a cast a considerable distance.
Labradors may have an edge in the ease of learning blinds. Goldens have a strong tendency to quarter and can change direction with amazing quickness, requiring patience and work in teaching of lining. Chesapeakes are apt to resent use of electric shock in training, and without the well-timed corrections made possible by the electronic collar, progress is slower. Despite the Chesapeake's fame as a water dog, Labradors are the fastest swimmers among the retrievers.
The Labrador Retriever
Photo by: Author
There are those who firmly believe Labrador dogs superior to bitches, citing the inconvenience of heat cycles, moodiness, and supposed lack of toughness about training. There are others who believe the opposite, claiming that bitches are more intelligent, more stylish, more tractable, and tend to show a better hunt for a downed bird--and those people are right in so far as their bitches are competitively successful.
Various ways of examining statistics suggest that Labrador bitches more than hold their own, a disproportionate number of them winning National competitions, for example. Dog vs. bitch is thus a matter of personal preference. Practical reasons to choose a bitch include that they are not as rough and less apt to get into fights. Bitches are also free from abrasion injuries to the scrotum incurred in heavy cover, as when flushing pheasants. On the other hand, if you don't have a secure kennel, heat cycles can be a huge hassle. Breeding obviously interferes with a bitch's work much more than that of a dog, and can be disastrous as the hormones may have a lasting effect on her attitude toward work.
While we believe that male and female Labradors are equally likely to be top-class retrievers, there are distinct differences in personality and response to training. Although advanced work requires great initiative on the part of any retriever, the sense of a classic master-dog relationship is greater with a male. A typical bitch, though she is appreciative of her handler's role in the partnership, retains a certain independence unto herself.
More than any other retriever, training the Labrador bitch reminds us of the joke about the sculptor who, when asked how to make a statue of an elephant, replied, "Just get a block of marble and chip away anything that doesn't look like an elephant." Both sexes of Labrador give the trainer the uncanny feeling that the retrieving is all there in the dog--the trainer's job is just to chip away and let it show. In general, however, the males seem to learn in a more predictable fashion, while bitches seem capable of reaching greater heights in the area of sheer breath-taking style. If you get a bitch, be careful not to place her with a trainer who has a strong preference for males.
Around the house, most Labradors are pretty easy-going, and not overly sensitive. Their adaptability and outgoing nature make them good companions for families who travel with their dogs and come into contact with a lot of people. Even the hardest-charging Labradors, once trained, become very relaxed and calm when not working. Labs vary in protectiveness. Many will bark threateningly until a stranger is within a certain distance, then suddenly act friendly and affectionate. A few will attack and bite a person they perceive as an intruder.
A final consideration in looking at Labradors is color. Try not to consider it very much. If a pup's parents meet your criteria and the pup happens to be yellow, OK. While a good chocolate is a good dog, there seems to be something associated with the color that makes success difficult in many cases. The reason to own a chocolate is that you have a particular love for that color and type of dog and that is more important to you than its work. For a performance Labrador, it can't hurt to borrow Henry Ford's dictum regarding the Model T: "you can have it any color you like -- so long as it's black."